A Matter of Survival
Bellevue Leader (Oct. 23, 2002)
By Wendy Townley
First-place winner for Best Feature Story in 2002 from the Nebraska Press Association
Shirley Hartranft. Diagnosed March 28, 1975.
Dianna Sherman. Diagnosed Oct. 16, 1991.
Billie Leazenby. Diagnosed February 12, 1999.
These three Bellevue women are the faces of breast cancer.
But their stories are ones of survival, spanning three decades of statistics, emotional roller coasters and a coming-to-terms of lives changed forever.
As women everywhere celebrate National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Bellevue Leader sat down recently with these three women to share their experiences, dispel the myths of this deadly disease and offer hope for those women – grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, co-workers and friends – who have received a life-changing diagnosis.
These are their stories.
Quietly knitting, Shirley Hartranft never leaves home without a project.
Something to keep her hands busy.
Something to keep her mind busy.
Shirley, 68, has learned to pass the time during the numerous doctor visits that have occupied her life since March 28, 1975.
Married to an “Air Force gypsy,” Shirley, husband Frank and their two children were stationed in Japan that year.
While undergoing a routine gynecological procedure, Shirley’s doctor decided to take a biopsy of her right breast.
“The doctor found something,” she said. “That was on Good Friday.”
Doctors quickly determined that Shirley’s lump was cancer.
The following Monday, Shirley underwent a radical mastectomy on her right side.
After surgery, Shirley learned her tumor was about the size of a thumb, keeping its secret hidden in a duct for a number of years.
The good news: the cancer hadn’t spread.
The California native described her diagnosis as “just plain dumb lucky.”
Lucky because organizations such as the American Cancer Society weren’t promoting breast self-examinations or the importance of mammograms.
Lucky because Shirley had no warning. Breast cancer didn’t run in her family.
Lucky because 27 years later, Shirley is still alive.
She still remembers – then four months shy of turning 40 – her reaction to the doctor’s diagnosis so many years ago.
“You heard the expression ‘My blood ran cold?’ It felt like I’d had an ice water transfusion,” Shirley said. “I was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, and I was so glad that the doctor was fairly close (to me). I was afraid I would fall off.”
Shirley still remembers when the doctor told her husband, a man who, 27 years later, still holds her hand, that his wife was living with cancer.
“It just came out of left field for both of us,” she said. “There was no preparation, no forewarning whatsoever.”
Unlike many breast cancer patients, Shirley didn’t need to undergo radiation or chemotherapy after her mastectomy.
But for a former nurse – one whose job is to understand the human body – Shirley didn’t think having her breast removed was fair.
Not because she wanted the cancer to spread.
Of course not.
In 1975, Shirley was ready to catapult her fashion to the next level.
“I had finally developed a taste for splashy clothes and low necklines. And here I was, I could not wear a low neckline,” she said.
Shirley adapted to her new body, and continues to each and every day.
She has Frank to help her with that.
“He and I made an agreement a long time ago. He can lie about my cooking, but if I say, ‘Do I look all right?’ I’d better look all right. That’s his job,” Shirley said.
While living life in a different body, Shirley learned that Frank was struggling to help his wife.
But he didn’t know how.
“He didn’t have anything to do for me. I needed to do things myself, to get myself back into working shape,” she said. “I needed to put the dishes on the shelf. I needed to do these things.”
Shirley said Frank became withdrawn, and that’s when she realized her husband wanted to care for her.
“So that’s when I gave him the job of making sure I always looked good. He still is. And he’s still lying about my cooking.”
Twelve months after Shirley’s diagnosis and mastectomy, social figures Betty Ford and Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller were both diagnosed with breast cancer.
And the secret disease women never spoke about was a secret no more.
“It suddenly became all right to talk about.”
Living the role of a breast cancer survivor has taught Shirley to appreciate her body without regard to its physical appearance.
“You are not one breast. You are what’s inside the rib cage, not what’s on it,” Shirley said. “And the doctor has not touched the real you.”
X-ray treatments as a child were supposed to ease Dianna Sherman’s asthma.
Born and raised in South Omaha, no one in Dianna’s family was ever diagnosed with breast cancer.
But at 45, Dianna became the first.
The woman who future generations would think of with sympathy.
The woman who would serve as a reminder to future generations to get those mammograms.
Dianna discovered her cancer when she found a lump in her right breast.
She underwent a mammogram, but the exam showed no signs of cancer.
Doctors first told Dianna, a divorced medical assistant at Bergan Mercy Hospital, that her lump was an overworked muscle.
“He kept telling me that for three years.”
So for three years, the lump that was cancer lived and grew and thrived inside Dianna’s body.
Three years after finding her lump, Dianna’s right breast was shrinking.
The cancer had taken over.
And it was winning.
With a mammogram came a biopsy.
With a biopsy came surgery.
With surgery came the removal of Dianna’s right breast.
And 23 lymph nodes.
And the removal of her left breast five days later after doctors realized the threat of the cancer’s return.
Dianna, 55, will never forget the day of her diagnosis.
Dianna’s D-Day (“D” for diagnosis) was in October 1991.
“At first, it was like a death sentence. You didn’t know a thing about breast cancer back then.”
What frightened Dianna were the innumerable treatments that followed her diagnosis and double mastectomy.
“I didn’t realize all the things you had to go through afterwards when you’re diagnosed,” Dianna said. “And I think that was scarier: the ultrasounds and the body scans to see if it had gone anywhere else.”
Unlike Shirley Hartranft’s encounter with breast cancer, Dianna wasn’t out of the woods after her surgery.
Eight months later, Dianna developed lymphedema, a condition where fluid in the body causes swelling in the arms and legs.
She has trouble walking because of it, and has also developed cellulitis, an inflammation of the cells. Dianna is now on a permanent antibiotic to prevent the cellulitis from spreading.
Dianna’s cancer diagnosis also threw her into menopause at 45.
Her college-age daughter didn’t deal with her mom’s medical announcement very well.
“It was really hard. She didn’t know if she was going to lose her mother,” she said.
But Dianna’s daughter still has a mom, 11 years later.
She said her success comes in maintaining a positive attitude and sharing her feelings with other female survivors.
“Getting into support groups is very helpful. You’ll meet other women who have been there, too.”
Being a single woman going through breast cancer made Dianna stronger in the end.
“I struggled. But I did it. I think it was very helpful for me to get through that,” she said. “I had to get up every day, be presentable. You just push yourself and that helps you get through it better.”
After nearly 18 years of marriage, Billie Leazenby, a substitute teacher and former gym teacher with Bellevue Public Schools, was ready to celebrate in 1999.
But a few days before her and husband Jeffrey’s Feb. 14 wedding anniversary, Billie, then 47, received word from her doctor that changed her life forever.
“The only thing you know is that you’re going to die, right?” Billie said.
While Billie’s diagnosis came just three years ago, she, like many women, were convinced breast cancer meant death.
After undergoing her third mammogram nearly two years after her second, Billie’s doctors discovered the cancer in the upper quadrant of her left breast.
At the same time, Billie had a non-cancerous cyst growing in about the same area on the right side of her body.
Billie, whose family doesn’t have a history of breast cancer, decided to take no chances with this disease.
She had both breasts removed about a month later.
“Whatever was happening to me in my body, my metabolic changes and whatever is promoting the cancer is still going to be happening,” Billie said. “They often think it’s recurring or the same cancer coming back. Why would I want to continue to wonder if I’m going to get it again?”
After her mammogram, doctors called Billie back to deliver the news in person.
When Billie and husband received her breast cancer diagnosis three years ago, the practical side of her brain didn’t let her panic.
“It wasn’t a total surprise. Rational thinking would tell you yes, there’s going to be a cancer diagnosis,” she said. “I was sitting there like it was some other person. I didn’t feel bad. I felt fine. I was thinking, ‘It’s somebody else.’ ”
Billie wasn’t much worried about how she’d handle a life with cancer.
It was her son, then a teen-ager, and mother she was concerned for.
“Realistically, I knew I had an early diagnosis and it should be fine. But if it turned out badly, how do you tell your son that he’s going to be without his mom?” Billie asked. “That was the biggest thing that hit me like a hammer. How do I tell my family?”
Like Shirley, Billie encountered challenges when dealing with her husband after surgery.
Jeffrey, Billie said, was concerned his wife to was too sore for any type of intimacy.
“He’s a big, strong, hulk kind of guy. He didn’t give me the hugs or any contact. He was very afraid he would hurt me,” she said. “I was quite delicate, but I sure longed for him to come close. The intimacy was hoped for, but it didn’t happen for quite awhile. So the tears came from that.”
Billie is positive she, like many women diagnosed with breast cancer, must share their experiences with others.
“My most important advice is to find people to talk to. The feelings you have make you afraid to tell anybody,” she said. “We have this negative self-image, so we don’t want anyone to see us. Or to tell them how we’re feeling and whatnot. And that puts us very alone. And that’s the worse thing you can do. There’s so much love and support out there.”
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